Jin Guihua is from the southwestern Chinese countryside and has only a high school education, but she has perfect mastery of her emotions—and her tear ducts.
For nearly twenty years, this skill has helped Jin (an assumed name) make a living by rather peculiar means: crying and weeping at funerals. At her latest job, she made 120 yuan (about $20); the pay is up the family.
An experienced actress and performer, Jin started her work when she was just 23. Now 42, and living in Chengdu, Sichuan Province, she is married and has a grown daughter.
But decades of crying and mourning, called “kusang” in Chinese, has taken its toll on Jin’s vision, the West China Metropolis Daily reported. In 2010, Jin’s eyesight suddenly deteriorated to the point that she was almost blind. Even after surgery, her vision made only marginal recovery.
Aside from the strain to her eyes caused by years of forced tears, Jin Guihua also has to work in smoky conditions. It is customary at traditional Chinese funerals to burn large amounts of items, including fake money, to accompany the deceased into the netherworld.
The Art of Mourning
“Kusang’s appeal only comes with genuine emotion,” says Jin, describing the particulars of her trade.
In ancient China, crying was described as three distinct acts, all three of which Jin must master for her performances to be convincing.
“Crying” refers to the act of both shedding tears and vocalizing, while shedding tears in silence is called “weeping.” Crying without tears is called “howling.”
Kusang is an ancient funeral custom, with a recorded history going all the way back to the reign of Emperor Wu in the Han Dynasty two thousand years ago. It varies based on the specific Chinese region and ethnic group.
Jin dons a white funerary costume and makeup while she cries. Accompanied by gongs and drums, she also sings.
“The sons and daughters kneel down in sadness before the hall of mourning,” she said. “They then burst into howling and crying,” as she mixes song and crying, sometimes standing, sometimes kneeling, as a means of strengthening the atmosphere.
Kusang was out of fashion during the first decades of communist rule, but experienced an explosion of popularity with the “reform and opening up” of the 1980s, leading to great demand of performers like Jin Guihua.
To act in character, Jin learns about the life and struggles of the deceased. She imagines herself “as a descendant of the dead, so the emotions well up naturally upon thinking of their hardship and reading the eulogy.”
Despite this, Jin prides herself in her work and says it has no negative effect on her emotions as she has learned to control herself. ” I just treat this as my job, and I separate it from my normal life.”
Difficulties in the Trade
However, Jin has had less business in recent years. About five years ago, she might have received around twenty jobs a month, but increasing competition—she says at least twenty others are now engaged in “kusang” in her district of Chengdu alone—and the physical exertion involved are wearing on her.
“Now I only do this once or twice a month,” Jin said. “Now, more people are engaged in this profession and competition is fierce.”
Most of Jin’s clients are from rural or suburban communities, where people are more mindful of traditional practices. “I have rarely get customers from cities, because they don’t pay much attention to this custom.”
The traditional act of kusang is also fading among young people, Jin said. “These days, only the older generation will cry and weep to mourn the dead. Modern people suppress their emotions and find it hard to shed tears in the hall of mourning, the sadness is repressed in their hearts. It is my work to guide and give expression to their emotions.”
According to the Chinese lunisolar calendar, April 4 and 5 are the days of the Qingming, or Pure Brightness, Festival. It is a time for families to visit and pay respects to their entombed ancestors.
Challenges from the market and her own health notwithstanding, Jin intends to continue her kusang work.
Jin Guihua’s daughter, now 21, also makes a living by helping families prepare for life events, but her profession is a happier one: she works with a wedding company.